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A Snapshot in Time: The Shifting Seas of MPA Coverage 

By Beth Pike | May 10, 2024

In our study published in May 2024 in Conservation Letters, our analysis, “Ocean protection quality is lagging behind quantity: Applying a scientific framework to assess real marine protected area progress against the 30 by 30 target” reports the results of applying scientific criteria to globally reported marine protected areas (MPAs). Our baseline measure of global marine protection quality revealed that very little of officially reported MPA coverage is implemented and is fully or highly protected, meaning it will reliably confer biodiversity benefits. MPAs that are not implemented on the water cannot accrue any of the increases in biodiversity intended when the sites were designated. Additionally, few MPAs have been designed to meaningfully protect ecosystem from direct human impacts or are in places that diversify the planet’s portfolio of global MPAs.

However, our analysis was based on MPA data from February 2023, and the seascape of global marine protection is ever-evolving. It’s important to remember that each evaluation of an MPA is simply a snapshot in time and that each MPA is on a unique journey influenced by its context, including political will, financial investment, community support and innumerable other conditions that can contribute to or detract from the conservation benefits it contributes.

In the fifteen months since this analysis was completed, the reported global MPA coverage in the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA) has dropped from 8.2% to 8.0%. The primary cause of this drop in global MPA coverage was a political shift. The Chagos Marine Protected Area in Mauritius was created and reported to the WDPA by the United Kingdom in 2010. However, in 2019, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution affirming the Chagos archipelago to be a part of Mauritius. The dispute over the Chagos archipelago is ongoing, but the MPA created in 2010 has just recently been removed by the WDPA in favor of a future designation from the Mauritius government. Efforts to create a new MPA under Mauritius governance are underway.

In the same fifteen months, the amount of MPA coverage that is fully or highly protected and implemented on the water has grown from 2.6% to 2.9%. Some of the changes that contributed to this increase in strong MPA coverage came from large MPAs considered in our 2023 analysis:

Not all the MPA changes since February 2023 have added to fully and highly protected coverage. In late 2022, Kiribati announced it was opening its waters to industrial long-line fishing and following that announcement, the parliament officially repealed the MPA legislation for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. We removed this MPA from our database later in 2023, which also removed one of the largest 100 fully protected MPAs in the paper.

To see the current status of the largest 100 MPAs, you can visit our up-to-date platform at MPAtlas.org where we strive to keep the most current numbers reported for fully and highly protected MPAs. We welcome participation in conducting and updating our MPA assessments – we rely on the assistance of people with local knowledge and on-the-ground experience in these protected areas to ensure our information is accurate. Users can feel free to share information with us, report any concerns or errors, and request to help complete assessments for an MPA or region.